- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2016

STERLING, Ill. (AP) - In a classroom setting where desks and chalkboards are replaced by haystacks and horses, Joan Harms found a new way to satisfy her passion for teaching others.

Each summer, Harms, who retired after teaching at Sterling public schools for 34 years, hosts the Horse Lovers Book Club for students ranging from first grade through seniors in high school.

“People are always searching for their reason or purpose in life, and this is mine,” Harms said. “I cannot describe the satisfaction that comes from seeing this make a difference in kids’ lives.”

The lessons occur at Copper Bit Ranch, 29145 Pilgrim Road, named after Copper Cactus, one of more than 100 horses Harms has trained there over the last 4 decades.

The club runs for 9 weeks, and its weekly sessions include about 45 minutes of gathering in lawn chairs in the shade reading a book about horses followed by another 45 minutes of hands-on experience learning how to manage and care for the animals.

Harms divides the club into small groups of seven or eight, based on age and experience levels with horses, to promote an inclusive atmosphere for the students.

The reading portion is supplemented with activities related to the material, anywhere from coloring horse illustrations to making crafts from horseshoes.

When the lesson moves into the stable, the students take part in a variety of interactions with the animals, such as braiding their manes, giving them a bath or covering them in pieces of paper that label the different parts of the horse.

By featuring a range of activities, Harms said the club approaches learning at many different levels to engage the children.

“It’s important to know that any one style of learning doesn’t fit all children, and the same is true with horses,” she said.

The club also can provide the students with a stress release, as horses carry no judgments and impose no pressure on others, she said.

“It also teaches them responsibility and empathy, which is so critical in our society,” Harms said. “When people have experience caring for another living being and know the responsibility that goes along with it, then they can take those lessons with them throughout life.”

One of the several horses the club members would encounter is the dusty silver-coated Wielkanoc, named after the Polish word for Easter Sunday.

At 31, he’s the oldest horse on the ranch. That’s almost 100 in human years. He once belonged to the Wrigley family.

The students learn about different bridles, saddle styles and knots as well as how to feed, measure, shoe and harness the horses.

When the weather calls for indoor activities, the club members congregate in Harms’ basement, where the walls are lined with hundreds of horse figurines.

The room also has stacks of photo albums containing pictures of past club members smiling and engaging with the horses and ponies.

Harms said another goal of the club is to dispel children’s negative attitude toward reading, which can develop in some students from pressure to reach reading quotas at school.

“I try to provide a haven for kids that just lets them escape from all of the busyness of city life and lets them connect with a group and learn something new,” she said.

The club, which was established in 2008, usually starts in early June after school lets out for summer break.

In addition to running the club, Harms has also been involved in 4H for 42 years, and also gives riding lessons.

One of her most rewarding experiences has been to have her former school or riding students return and ask her to teach their kids, she said

“My goal throughout my entire life has been to teach others, and that passion does not go away.”


Source: The (Sterling) Daily Gazette, https://bit.ly/1SYnfsv


Information from: The Daily Gazette, https://www.saukvalley.com

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